DNA of a Successful Panel Discussion

What is it that turns a panel discussion on your event into either a success of a failure? Jan-Jaap unravels the DNA of a successful panel.

Kevin Van der Straeten
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What is it that turns a panel discussion on your event into either a success of a failure? Jan-Jaap unravels the DNA of a successful panel.


Hi Jan-Jaap, welcome to our studio.


Hi Kevin.


Today our topic is panel discussions. How do you make sure you have the right panel? Maybe we should start with, how many people should be in a panel?


Basically I say three.


Only three?


Only three. If they put a gun to your head, four.


Most panels I see have five or more people in them.


Yeah, I’ve even been asked to a panel of 12 people and I said ‘no thank you’. I mean, from experience I know that what happens if you have more than three or four people in a panel, there’s two options. Some people will start fighting for their ground. They will start fearing that they will not be able to say what they want to say, so they start pushing. And that is not very pleasant for the others in the panel and for the audience to look at. And the other side of the spectrum is that some people will simply give up. They will see eight panelists, and they will know ‘I will have no time to say anything, so let’s just sit back and wait ‘til it’s over’… And then you get this, two or three people in your panel doing this. That is really horrible. And from experience I know, if you put three people in a panel, that is the ideal combination where people will all have their say, and will all listen to each other.


OK, three, maximum four panel members. But how do you select them?


Well, step one is actually starting to select, because in general there is no selection. Most panels are just the place where you put everyone that needs to be on stage for a bad reason, it’s a sponsor, it’s a manager, it’s an elder man, just put them all in the panel then we get rid of them. And that is not a good reason to do a panel. So if you start a panel, be very clear in your objective with the panel. Once you have the objective clear then you can say, OK, what types of panelists do we need? Do we need somebody ‘pro’ and somebody ‘con’ and an expert? Or do we need three perspectives to the same question? So maybe consumers, producers, governments. And once you know what types of panelists you want, you can start searching for the people who can take, that specific role that you need and that specific conversation.


And do you only select them on knowledge, their expertise, or also on their personality for example?


Yeah, absolutely, because having three JJs or three Kevins in one panel might either be boring, or one big mess with people shouting, etc. because we’re all the same. What I always try to do is if I know the three content types, I will say, OK, so we have a consumer representative, and he is a well-spoken thoughtful kind of guy. Then we need another one who is more outspoken or funnier or whatever. So if you have three personalities within one panel it will be more lively.


Yeah, of course. We have the panel, Yes.


but in my opinion the moderator is as important as the panel itself.


Yes, what the moderator does is, apart from content, make sure that the panel will lighten up, that the panel will be on fire. Because what you often see in panels is that they are basically three speeches. Three people here and I get my three minutes of fame, and two are waiting, ‘when’s my turn?’ And then my turn is over so I can start looking at the ceiling because my turn is over. So I would rather go to the toilet or my email or whatever. What you really need to do in a panel – the only reason for a panel is if they interact. You do not put three people on stage for no reason. And a moderator can help get that interaction going. For instance, by observing people and seeing when they start nodding for instance. If I talk and you nod, you think something of what I say. And if you do this, it’s even more interesting.


You don’t agree.


Yeah. And the moderator will observe and will just choose his moments halfway through my part of my talk to say, ‘JJ, interrupting you for a moment, Kevin is nodding. Kevin, you do not agree?’ ‘No, I don’t, because…’ And then I can go back to the others, ‘but he says’, and then the other one can respond again. And then you kind of raise them from the early start of the panel in ‘hey, I want you to interact’. And once they find that out, once they know, panelists love it, that you want them to interact.


And what about the audience?


Well, involve them as much as possible if you can. They can become the fourth panelist. Because anything that happens here once this panel is on fire can be translated into the audience, and then they will listen better and they will take in the information or the standpoints better. And the panel will be better because if you involve the audience you will tell your panel, ‘hey guys, there’s people there, and please remember that you are talking to them, and that you have to look at their perspective to the problem’. For instance, if the room is full of teachers, or if the room is full of entrepreneurs, you know ‘OK, I have to take the entrepreneurial angle, or the teacher angle’ I mean, if you say ‘I think that everybody knows by now this and this and this’, I can simply turn to the audience, ‘do you know?’.


Do you know, yeah.


And ‘do we agree?’ ‘No we don’t!’ ‘Why not?’ ‘Because’, Kevin, there is one person there who says ‘you are not right because…’ And then you have to step up your game of talking. And that’s really great.


I remember that we need to think before we set up a panel discussion.


Yeah, absolutely. As every part in a program you need to design your panel, and if you design your panel for the three right people, the right objective, then you will have not what we are used to – the panel being the most boring part of a conference, And you will turn into a very lively, very heavy on great content, lots of learning. You will turn it into something brilliant. It can be done. I have seen it happen.


OK, Jan-Jaap, thank you very much.


Thank you.


And you at home, thank you for watching our show. I hope to see you next week.